Job creation for creative fields drives Nossi’s growth

Friday, June 17, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 24
By Hollie Deese

At the graduation ceremony for Nossi College of Art in Madison earlier this month, school founder Nossi Vatandoost, 88, was onstage handing out diplomas to the dozens of students who earned their degree this year.

It’s what she has done every year since 1973, after founding the school two years earlier out of a friend’s spare room, pregnant with her son Cyrus – now the school’s CEO – for just three students.

The Persian-born fine artist first came to this country to attend UCLA’s art program before she met Cyrus’ father Iraj, who had come to this country from Iran to attend a Baptist college in Texas.

She went with him to Texas, and soon the two were married and transferred to Western Kentucky University together. Iraj and Nossi’s daughter Lelah was the first foreign-born child of a student in married housing there.

After graduation, they moved to Nashville, one of few Iranian-Persian families in the area at the time.

“There was nobody like them around,” son Cyrus Vatandoost says.

After many years teaching in the Metro Nashville school system, Nossi was frustrated by the lack of money and support the arts programs got, so her husband encouraged her to enjoy her children and start teaching on her own, in her own way.

“She traded with a friend of hers who had an extra room in her house she could use as her studio, if she promised to teach her kid for free,” Cyrus says. It was 1971 and she charged each student $3 an hour.

Little by little, the effort expanded until Nossi moved into a studio in Madison, then a location in Hendersonville.

“She worked a lot, and that grew,” Cyrus says. “And then the parents started saying, ‘Well, I want to learn to paint.’ Some of my youngest memories were when she had her studio right next to my elementary school, so I could walk there after school.”

Cyrus remembers children and adults all coming to learn, while his mother went room to room, here helping a 10-year-old with a still life, there helping an adult with an oil painting.

“It was just amazing, the best memories I had,” he says. “I remember watching how she interacted with people of all ages and, and helped them at whatever level they were on. I didn’t go to day care; I grew up at an art school.”

Nossi continued to teach while Iraj worked on getting the school accredited, driving the business side in a way that helped create a curriculum that translated into jobs for creatives after graduation.

“It’s about aligning the needs of the community so you can put out the graduate that can go out and work in the field,” Cyrus says. “So, coding, front end, web development, that’s needed. In Nashville right now there’s jobs in graphic design, social media, content creation… that stuff is out there. And people need it right now.”

Madison’s Nossi College of Art began in one room of a friend’s house in 1971.

-- Photo By Ed Rode

Most recently Nossi opened a culinary arts program because of Nashville’s current need for chefs.

“It is really difficult to bring those people to Nashville from Chicago or Miami because of the pay structure,” Cyrus says. “They need homegrown talent in a pipeline, and that’s what we’re building. It’s just common sense.”

Over the years, the school grew far beyond that spare room and three students, leasing space in Rivergate until it got to the point where a campus was needed to continue to grow and give students a better experience.

They found the property in Madison off Ellington Parkway in 2008 and spent two years designing it and another year building it.

The project was delayed at first by the market crash that ruined their financing, a situation that ended up working in their favor because contractors with work that had dried up were suddenly competitive in their pricing.

“You can’t ever touch it again for what we spent to build it, so we were really fortunate,” he says. “We got moved in and we kind of suffered through the recession, which hurt Madison a lot.”

But Cyrus knew Madison would make a comeback, and now he is in the middle of it. He was approached by developer Keith Samaroo, who had bought the property across the street, and they started to talk about what the vision was for the school’s future.

To Cyrus, that meant creating housing for students, and it aligned with Samaroo’s vision for Creative Way Village, a mixed-use retail and residential development that could provide said opportunity.

“I am just really thankful that Keith saw the vision too, because he could have done a lot of different things with that development, but he saw the potential,” Cyrus says.

Now Cyrus says it’s time to reintroduce the school to a changing community that might not even realize an art school about to celebrate 50 years in existence is just a 10-minute rideshare from downtown.

“Nashville used to be such a small town that everybody knew us,” he says.

The school’s namesake stepped down and officially retired in 2021, leaving the instruction to the school’s staff of working creative professionals, pulled directly from their respective industries.

“We kind of go backwards,” Cyrus says. “We’re really good at finding people who have the right personality to teach, the right demeanor, and then turning them into teachers.”

So not only do the students get to see what the life of a working creative is like – and that there are jobs available to be had – the teachers get inspired by the engagement of their students.

“It’s a community,” Cyrus says.